Although Warren Beatty intended for Reds to become his magnum opus, and the majority of leading critics considered it to be just that both when it was first released and today, there is no escaping the lifelessness in which this daunting epic is soaked. The story is about Jack Reed, arguably the United States' most famous communist activist, who spent large parts of his short and stormy life in Russia during the October Revolution, and subsequently worked to agitate the same rebellion in American socialist circles. As a historical document, Reds is both important and daring. And speaking of daring, Beatty's most impressive feat with Reds arguably is to at all get it made – at the height of the cold war in a far from communist-friendly USA. And not only did he get it made, but he also got his studio (Paramount) to invest $33 million in it – with very little artistic control. This is a testament to two circumstances: a) The disproportionate amount of power Warren Beatty enjoyed (or charmed his way into) in the film business towards the end of the 1970s, and b) The lack of studio control in the wake of the auteur-driven 1970s filmmaking. Unfortunately, Reds does not justify either of these circumstances.
As an effort, Reds is semi-noble and highly ambitious, but at 194 minutes, Beatty's ambition proved to be too much for him to handle. His infinite amount of takes and inability to focus the script ultimately resulted in a formless, massive blob of a film with a repetitive narrative mode and a flat dramatic curve. It's amazing how, despite over three hours of leeway, Beatty still isn't able to conjure any real narrative climaxes (perhaps with the exception of the one created by Jack Nicholson).
The film is not just about Reed as a political figure, but it also aspires to be a romance of epic proportions. In fact, Beatty is more than happy to push his political subject matter in the background to show off his and girlfriend Keaton's mirror image portrayal of their own relationship. If only they could make their love feel as significant as they seem to think it is.
The soul and backbone of Reds are the interviews of the "witnesses" – a number of elderly individuals who were there during the time of Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, and who have various observations about them and the contemporary political and social air. Beatty began filming these interviews in the early 1970s, and he obviously did a good job with them, because many of them show vivacious, passionate people with a glowing interest for the things they comment on and talk about. It's a clever move utilizing these clips the way Beatty does; they give the film an effective authenticity and take us back to the time and spirit in question. But they also elucidate how the film itself doesn't succeed at this, and expose the bland acting by the two leads and the insipid romance they are meant to embody. For a film as ostensibly deep and all-embracing as Reds, it remains a strangely jejune work.